Statements and Social Power

MacArthur and Friends published a so-called “Statement on Social Justice” recently. It’s the second major statement made within conservative evangelical circles in the last year or so; the first, the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood’s “Nashville Statement.” Both statements sought to clarify certain evangelical theo-political positions, and both were lauded by those for whom they were written. The Nashville Statement has over twenty thousand signatories — the Statement on Social Justice, over nine thousand — to date. These public declarations have clearly struck a chord.

They are not without their faults, however. Matthew Lee Anderson excoriated the Nashville Statement and then, remembering Zombieland’s second rule, had the wherewithal to double tap. While I don’t agree with everything that Anderson writes (a tall order, considering his prolificacy), Anderson has demonstrated an obvious, sustained, and rigorous pattern of thought on the particular ethical concerns currently impinging the church’s freedom to worship and be in the public square. His thoughtfulness is not mirrored in these statements, which is part of the issue he takes with the Nashville Statement in particular. Rather than resorting to a kind of knee-jerk reaction, Anderson’s measured reflection on contemporary trends is praiseworthy, and it serves the church’s advancement in coming years in a way that the defensive postures of the Nashville Statement and the Statement on Social Justice do not.

That said, disregard the failure to conceptualize adequately theo-ethical concerns. Set aside the problems that Anderson outlines. Although I find his argument eminently compelling, I want to draw your attention to a more formal, or political, issue.

The church is a variegated body. I’m torn over whether distinctions are inherently vicious. (The argument that they are inherently virtuous is obviously wrong, as far as I’m concerned.) Nevertheless, the fact that the political body is split into various bodies is indisputable. We see a variety of denominations, and these each exist within or as distinct institutions. Most of these political bodies also exist within the spiritual body, although the precise nature of the relationship between the political bodies and spiritual body of Christ is a bit complicated. (For some, the political body of Christ is coextensive with the spiritual; for others, they are mutually exclusive; both positions are asinine.)

In any event, whether splits in Christ’s body are good or bad, they do exist, and at least part of what is entailed by their existence is a dispersion of the responsibilities of church discipline. That is to say, however local churches are structured, and to whomever they bind themselves (denominationally, associationally, etc.-ly speaking), the responsibility to discipline does not rest in the fragmented body of Christ as such but to this or that fragment, or to this or that collection of fragments. I gesture at some issues associated with discipline in this piece on satellite campuses, but I dwell on it in this piece on heresy. (If you have a few moments, read that article, and then continue in this one.)

The Nashville Statement and the Statement on Social Justice depart from traditional models of ecclesial discipline, which both statements are designed to enable the church to enact. The perlocutionary aim of these statements is obvious enough:  clarify and provide social capital to particular theo-political perspectives so that the evangelical church has purchase to enforce these perspectives–that is, to enact discipline along these lines.

However, these movements are an attempt to circumvent the established mode of church discipline. These statements are not issued ex cathedra; of course, there is no formal institution that would allow for such a statement–because there is no attendant disciplinary structure to enforce adherence. And yet, framers of these statements certainly intend that their published words be heeded by the evangelical church. If that is the case, and if evangelicals lack the basic polity for such statements to be enforced de jure, what is the mechanism by which such statements are adopted by evangelicals at large?

Coercive power, effected through the use of social/political capital. The individuals responsible for the Nashville Statement (Moore, Mohler, etc.) and the Statement on Social Justice (MacArthur, White, etc.) are well-known figures in evangelical circles. They individually have significant cache, and grouped together these evangelical leaders exert an especially outsized influence on evangelicalism. Such influence isn’t necessarily improper. But when it is utilized in this context, as a means of working around established institutions and ecclesial polities, it violates the autonomy of local bodies and their institutional relations. While evangelical leaders are not appointed through an official channel, it would be foolish to ignore the fact that there are de facto figureheads within evangelicalism. John MacArthur’s nickname “The Evangelical Pope” is elucidative. Issuing these declarations “[without] any pretense of ecclesiastical authority” is a bold denial of the reality of the situation. Church leaders who do not sign statements are called into question, whether or not they have good reason not to sign. The shepherds are called into question by the sheep for their refusal to submit themselves to an exertion of social power, which has no formal authority over them. In terms of form, exercising power in this manner is totally backwards. (Unless we’re in the midst of a new reformation? We’re not, but it could be argued that would be a sufficient cause to subvert ecclesial institutions. I did so in an earlier paper.)

There are ways to issue these statements without violating the formal structures of the church, but it’s a much more difficult task within the evangelical movement because it is not a formal church polity. First, those who wish to issue statements could refuse to purportedly speak on behalf of or to evangelicals as such. Second, those who issue statements could incorporate key denominational and congregational leaders, but specifically those who exercise political authority–not seminary presidents, best-selling authors, and commission leaders. Evangelical statements should either be curtailed to specific denominations or associations, or they should be developed with input from institutional leaders. Failing to do either results in a statement from nowhere exerting authority everywhere.


Review: Walking Through Infertility (2018)

9781433559310In his 2018 book Walking Through Infertility, Matthew Arbo writes for couples struggling with infertility and for those who would desire to help them during this time–particularly during the early stages of grief. Arbo offers a gentle but firm account of a properly Christian response to infertility–namely, a disciple’s call “to come and die” and an acquiescence to the sovereign rule of god.

I cannot speak from a firsthand perspective, but it certainly wouldn’t surprise me if Arbo’s mode of writing as often discouraged the struggling as encouraged. It could be that such discouragement is due to weakness or poor discipleship; nothing written was out and out false.

Perhaps this tightrope of “hard truth” and offense speaks to the inherent difficulty of writing a book of this nature (i.e., pastoral, counsel-ish), whose aim ought to be saved for in-person pastoral care. However, were Arbo writing for pastors and counselors for the purpose of training them for this kind of care, the project would have been fundamentally changed. As it stands, the book is adequate for its purpose, although I found myself wishing for more rigorous and detailed interpretations in the early chapters.

The book shifts away from this forthrightly pastoral perspective for its final chapter, which addresses three of the major “last-ditch efforts” for those attempting to overcome infertility:  intrauterine insemination, in vitro fertilization, and surrogacy. Surrogacy Arbo dismisses completely as a moral option, and IUI and IVF are themselves highly problematic as far as Arbo is concerned. The change in tone is obvious, and, while the subject matter is clearly appropriate for the work, it lacked a smoothing-out. Moreover, again citing what I wish the book could have been, I wanted a more robustly theo-ethical account of the shortcomings of IUI, IVF, and surrogacy. For the intended audience, it was surely adequate in the context of further pastoral care.

Walking through Infertility would be a valuable work in the context of local church pastoring for couples who are in the throes of infertility. Read by a pastor or counselor and a couple, this book could open conversations, which could in turn provide an opportunity for healing.

I received a complimentary edition of this work from Crossway in exchange for an honest review.

The Polarity of Freedom and Destiny

I’ve noted before the appeal of existential philosophy on the basis of the seriousness with which it treats human decision. Our decisions and our choices are really our decisions and our choices. There is no externality, to which we can point, that can absolve us. We have chosen to act in one manner or the other, and we must own the consequences of that decision. De Beauvoir rightly points out that this predicament is exacerbated–not mitigated–if we were to assume the “death of god.” In such a scenario, we are radically “abandoned” to our own lives; “if God does not exist, man’s faults are inexpiable.”

Of course, this existential position tends to undercut another tradition within which I grew up. I was raised in a Christian tradition which was, while not explicitly Calvinistic, certainly assumed prominent features of Calvinist theology, particularly the hypotheses of god’s foreknowledge and active predestination. These assumptions were more so drawn out as I transitioned to high school and college, as one would expect, and they were reinforced by the upsurge of the “young, restless, and reformed” movement, which was marked by a new fascination with Augustine, Calvin, and Edwards on the basis of recommendations from people like Piper, Driscoll, and Chandler.

These two different threads ran together in my atmosphere and collided toward the end of my collegiate career, leaving me a bit confused. I wanted to hold on to our radical responsibility (a radical responsibility now, in some measure, mitigated) while at the same time maintaining a quote-unquote orthodox Calvinism. You don’t try to balance antinomies for long before one of them gives.

Tillich was likely the first serious attempt I came across to incorporate the existential structures of our being into a Christian conception of the world. Although I had read some Kierkegaard and some Dostoevsky, neither of these were afforded the privilege of writing downstream from existential philosophy; they were forebears.  Tillich, on the other hand, arose in the height of the existential movement and was thus able to incorporate its insights into “Dasein”.

In his Systematic Theology, Tillich described the human condition as one consisting of a number of “polarities,” features of “being” which pull us in opposite directions, as it were–a nod to the basic dialectical structure of reality. These polarities are understood as contrasting pairs of forces:  subjectivity vs. objectivity, form vs. dynamics, and freedom vs. destiny.

The polarity of freedom and destiny speaks most directly to the entanglement of existential philosophy and a robust conception of god’s will. If god wills that history unfold in a certain manner, how can the means through which this was accomplished be held ethically responsible? People amount to puppets. On the other hand, if we are radically responsible for our actions, there is no recourse, no external force upon which we can shift the blame of our actions; there can have been no god who forced our hand.

For Tillich, what is basic to humanity is living under the structures of the polarities he mentioned, including the polarity of freedom and destiny. That is to say, to be human is to live by means of freedom mitigated by destiny and to live by means of destiny mitigated by freedom. Humans are a kind of in-between creature–with a true subjectivity but still objectified, lacking the perfection of freedom that belongs to god himself but not utterly destined like a mere thing:

Our destiny is that out of which our decisions arise; it is the indefinitely broad basis of our centered selfhood; it is the concreteness of our being which makes all our decisions our decisions. When I make a decision, it is the concrete totality of everything that constitutes my being which decides, not an epistemological subject. This refers to body structure, psychic strivings, spiritual character. It includes the communities to which I belong, the past unremembered and remembered, the environment which has shaped me, the world which has made an impact on me. It refers to all my former decisions. Destiny is not a strange power which determines what shall happen to me. It is myself as given, formed by nature, history, and myself. My destiny is the basis of my freedom; my freedom participates in shaping my destiny.

Only he who has freedom has a destiny. Things have no destiny because they have no freedom. God has no destiny because he is freedom. The word ‘destiny’ points to something which is going to happen to someone; it has an eschatological connotation. This makes it qualified to stand in polarity with freedom. It points not to the opposite of freedom but rather to its conditions and limits. Fatum (‘that which is foreseen’) or Schicksal (‘that which is sent’), and their English correlate ‘fate,’ designate a simple contradiction to freedom rather than a polar correlation, and therefore they hardly can be used in connection with the ontological polarity under discussion. But even the deterministic use of these words usually leaves a place for freedom; one has the possibility of accepting his fate or of revolting against it. Strictly speaking, this means that only he who has this alternative has a fate. And to have this alternative means to be free.

Since freedom and destiny constitute an ontological polarity, everything that participates in being must participate in this polarity. But man, who has a complete self and a world, is the only being who is free in the sense of deliberation, decision, and responsibility. Therefore, freedom and destiny can be applied to subhuman nature only by way of analogy; this parallels the situation with respect to the basic ontological structure and the other ontological polarities.[1]

There’s obviously a lot to unpack here, but I’ll save some of those thoughts for a later date. I keep returning and returning to Tillich. We’ll get back to these themes eventually.

[1] Tillich, Paul. Systematic Theology, Volume 1 (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1951), 184-5.

Review: Textual Silence (2017)

9780813589916Jessica Lang offers us an interesting phenomenology of reading and writing, specifically in reference to works related to the Holocaust, in her work Textual Silence: Unreadability and the Holocaust (Rutgers University Press, 2017). I’ve been attempting to get a handle on what actually occurs when we read and when we write–how is it that we assimilate a book, a movie, a poem into our lives, despite the obvious separation between an author and her work or between an audience and the same? Although Lang specifically targets the body of material pertaining to the Holocaust, she touches on significant features of reading, writing, and experience as such.

The Holocaust is the indescribable experience par excellence. It is in this sense different from other significant events in history; the depth of suffering and the ruthlessness of industrial slaughter are both difficult to stomach, much less distill into another medium. The nature of the Holocaust does not permit the reader to understand fully what transpired; this derives, more basically, from the fact that the author is able neither to transcribe fully the events. Unwritability engenders unreadability. The reader attempts to jump back into the event through the author’s words, just as the author attempts to jump back into the event itself; however, the air gap between reader, author, and event prevents, or frustrates, this move.

Lang moves through three “generations” of Holocaust literature–those who experienced it as cognizant sufferers, those who can’t remember living through or are only related to somebody who did, and those who don’t have a substantial connection to the event–and each generation grapples with the unreadability of the Holocaust in a largely unique manner. Whether by relegating it to the backdrop of a novel about “other things” (3rd generation) or by struggling to understand it as one who walked through the camps (1st generation), Holocaust authors recognize the inherent unsuitability of words and grammar to convey the event. The logos-conflict rises most closely to the surface of works in the immediate wake of the Holocaust, but it’s omnipresent as far as the genre is concerned.

An important consideration is whether the Holocaust is wholly unique in its unwritable and unreadable quality, or whether this aspect belongs to our experience of the world as such. It seems clear, as far as I’m concerned, that the Holocaust stands on one end of a spectrum of unknowability but is not itself the only member of this spectrum; it’s extreme in kind but not in type. The Holocaust, by virtue of its extremity, is particularly unknowable, but human experience in general is not reducible to language. We are more than words can express. The Holocaust is not as such unknowable; inherent limitations of language and inherent aspects of human experience are mutually inexchangable. The gravity and particular absurdities of the Holocaust make intelligently expressing it more difficult, but difficulty as such is already baked into the project of expression.

By focusing her energy on the Holocaust, Lang clarifies features common to the relationship of expression to existence because the Holocaust so clearly demonstrates the inadequacies of language to facilitate wholly an understanding of experience. We can have faithful representations insofar as language is stretched to accomplish the task, but the inherent limitations of language begin to shine more brightly the closer one comes to entirely inexplicable moments or persons. This same difficulty is what gives legs to the apophatic movement in theology–although apophaticism (at least, in its naïve manifestations) fails to recognize the responsibility to use those tools at our disposal to speak positively of god. In like manner, we are responsible to speak and to write and to read faithfully of an event described, knowing that the unobstructed and the objective, all-seeing perspective are unattainable.

Textual Silence helps propel the conversation forward on this problem of reading and writing, albeit through the particular lens of Holocaust literature.

The Postmodernists Are at It Again! A Critical Review of Love Thy Body (2018)

9780801075728Pearcey, Nancy R. Love Thy Body: Answering Hard Questions about Life and Sexuality. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2018. $22.99

Celebrated evangelical apologist Nancy Pearcey published Love Thy Body: Answering Hard Questions about Life and Sexuality in 2018. The book is a sustained critique of contemporary ethical discourse, which purportedly disvalues the material body in favor of one’s immaterial consciousness. Pearcey offers a “teleological view of nature,” (21) in which nature is built in such a manner that the “teloi” or ends or goals of nature (humanity included) inhere in the material world. They belong, ontologically, to beings as such, which entails that individuals are not free to create their own “ends” but must rather submit to those already constraining them by virtue of their existence in the world.

Lest we get muddled from here, let’s be perfectly clear. This book is not good. Despite the plethora of reviews to the contraryLove Thy Body is sloppy and poorly argued. As a work of Philosophy–that is, as a work that critically reviews, evaluates, and appraises other philosophical ideas–it’s sophomoric. (Her treatment of Kant [162 – 165] is especially heinous. The analysis would not have stood in my 3000-level Ethics course.) She pulls critique-worthy articles from SalonThe Huffington Post, and even Daily Kos, while not even registering the difficulty of citing Breitbart and The Blaze because of their problematic pieces. And so, Pearcey’s scales seem weighted in favor of one side rather than the other, which, for all her talk of “objectivity” and “scientific facts” (195) over against “subjective and arbitrary” (56) determinations, strains the reader’s credulity.

Pearcey’s Personhood Theory

Part and parcel to Pearcey’s problem of sourcing is the way in which she develops her view of the “personhood theory”–the foil for her whole project. Pearcey devotes each chapter of Love Thy Body to analyzing and critiquing a particular manifestation of “personhood theory.” And so, she moves from “I Hate Me,” which functions as an introduction to the theory, to “The Joy of Death,” in which she addresses questions of euthanasia and abortion. From there, “Dear Valued Constituent” touches on all manner of political problems raised and “Schizoid Sex” is geared toward the obvious. “The Body Impolitic” and “Transgender, Transreality” both focus on gender theory, especially in Judith Butler. Her conclusion, “The Goddess of Choice is Dead,” offers a few final thoughts and a brief positive vision:  the church must cultivate and proclaim a healthy vision of bodies and of organic communities, i.e. families and the like.

Value vs. Fact

To get at what motivates the contemporary person, Pearcey says, “we must dig down to the underlying worldview” (18). We’ll address her worldview-talk below, but for now we’ll attend to her construction of the “personhood theory.” Pearcey diagnoses the modern vision as one which, per Schaeffer’s “two-story” account, divides the human being into two substances:  the modern “lower story” of material and “facts” and the postmodern “upper story” of consciousness and “values.” Insofar as “personhood” is concerned, Pearcey contends that an individual today merely “values” the upper story, the one in which we impose our designs on the world. Worth does not, then, belong to the lower story, the “given” in the world. Rather than integrating the two spheres, they remain disparate. According to Pearcey, the postmodernist will say that a living being, with the genetic and physical characteristics belonging to the human species, may not yet “earn the status of personhood by achieving a certain level of cognitive functioning” (25)–that is, consciousness. Contrary to this, Pearcey asserts, “A biblical ethic is incarnational. We are made in God’s image to reflect God’s character, both in our minds and in our bodily actions. There is no division, no alienation. We are embodied beings” (35).

The problem, of course, is that Pearcey doesn’t have somebody to point towards to say, “This person articulates personhood theory in the way I’m describing.” Her personhood theory amounts to an imposition of Schaeffer’s heuristic model on the world. She can’t work with a tangible, concrete articulation of this theory. As a result, Pearcey can whale away at a so-called personhood theory, but there’s no more substance to the theory than to the shadow in shadow-boxing.

The Schaefferian analysis reaches its limit in this regard, because it reveals itself to be an imposition. For the same reason that capitalists don’t find Marxist analyses of the world persuasive, a liberal will object to Pearcey’s diagnosis of the problem–precisely because the diagnosis is not framed in a manner consistent with the person’s own expression of their position. In other words, Pearcey’s critique speaks, at best, adjacently to the problem she’s unconvered, but her refusal to cite liberal theory-builders in this project exacerbates the injury to her argument. Rather than attacking an idea which has been formulated and expressed and carefully delineated, she’s constructed her own version of the liberal project, pointed out the weak spots as she’s understood them, and lit into them, as though they comprised a straw-man.

Choose Your Level

It is curious, of course, that, for all Pearcey’s concerns about personhood theory doing violence to the “lower level” of the material world and for her interest in maintaining the integrity of both levels simultaneously, her project ends up collapsing the two levels into each other. Rather than showing deference to the upper level of values, as the postmodernist does, Pearcey derives the whole of one’s purpose from the lower level, such that any difference between the two are resolved in obeisance to the material. Would it be too far of a stretch to point out that this pattern of deference moves in exactly the opposite direction that the apostle describes in Rom. 7 and especially 7.23? Paul seems to contradict Pearcey’s contention when she writes, “You cannot be a whole person when your emotions are at war with your physiology” (173).

Pearcey’s strict differentiation between consciousness and the body fails to account for the ways in which “the body” is itself the mediation of our consciousness. She pays lip service to the idea, to be sure (34), but Pearcey seems to conceive of our consciousness as some kind of ethereal presence that dwells within our body, like a nut in its shell, but without a necessary relationship between the two. She refers to us as “embodied souls” (21) but never as “psychosomatic unities,”[1] which is more apt when we are discussing the differences between the material and immaterial aspects of existence. (She comes closest when she writes that we are a “psychosexual unity” [32], but this is insufficient.) Were Pearcey to pay more careful attention to the “embodied” nature of our consciousness, i.e. its location somewhere along our neural pathways, she may be more circumspect about denigrating consciousness at the expense of the body. The two are inseparable–essentially so.

Nevertheless, more to the heart of Pearcey’s conception of the human’s two-level existence is the question of the extensivity of sin. I touched on the issue briefly here concerning Aaron Hernandez and with reference to Karl Rahner here, but it will be good to briefly revisit the idea. When Paul writes that the creation has been subject to futility (cf. Ro. 8.20-23), we rightly understand that to mean that natural disasters aren’t in fact “natural”; they’re a product of our alienation from god. Illness, injury, and death are likewise the result of creation’s bondage to sin. However, I frequently read commentators who elide over this passage while failing to discern the degree to which this bondage seeps into our bodies on a microscopic level. It’s as though the entire world has been set against itself, and, like Paul, we witness different components of our bodies making war against others. If we were to accept the radical subversion of the created order due to the original sin, would that not at the least give us pause before blithely conceding that manifest biological appearance trumps the so-called subjective feelings, which themselves come from the biologically-rooted consciousness of the individual? Even Pearcey acquiesces that our “feelings” may have some genetic cause (196). The embodied soul, in this case, may fight a losing battle against its instantiation in the world of sin, but, if the soul is “gendered” in a manner discommensurate with its presentation, it would be difficult to name such a battle vicious.

Liberals, Progressives, and Postmoderns, oh my!

She exhibits a number of authorial traits that are more annoying than anything else, but they are also illuminative, because they give an idea of her intended audience. Although Love Thy Body appears to be an evenhanded treatment of “somatic ethics” (my term) in the contemporary world, Pearcey “tips her hand” and reveals the polemical substructure of her work. She frequently resorts to the not quite insults of “liberals” and “progressives” (93), as well as “the media” (33), each of which are to be seen as contrasted with “Christians” and “conservatives”–all while occasionally lambasting “politically correct sexual orthodoxy” (123, 130-1). Unblinking, she cites both The Federalist (212), Matt Walsh (68), and Breitbart (151). She even references Planned Parenthood’s black market for organs (51). Her biggest target may be the State (84, 251-6) or “the nanny state” (243), although she does have an abiding confidence in “the family [as] a bulwark protecting the unalienable rights recognized in the Declaration of Independence” (253; cf. 60, where Pearcey references the “transcendent source” of those enumerated rights).

Were you not to recognize the characteristics above, she would fall quite neatly into the consistent GOP-voting Christian demographic, which, as far as my sphere of influence is concerned, is fairly uninteresting. This kind of person exists everywhere in my world, and they’re frequently lovely people–no less so than normal, at least. But, were Pearcey’s aim to convince, say, a typical liberal of her arguments, casually tossing “liberal” and “progressive” as, functionally, “people you should not wish to be” is not the way to go. It’s more insulting than necessary, and Pearcey doesn’t have the argumentative purchase to afford losing readers to petty name-calling. That is to say, her arguments just aren’t strong enough to assume that the reader will tolerate her casually dismissing their ideology or themselves. And, further, her writing just isn’t clever enough to maintain attention even in the face of polemical insult, unlike Christopher Hitchens’ noted prose.

Such a posture prompts a secondary problem, however. With Pearcey’s close identification of Christianity and conservatism (which identification is, again, neither remarkable nor particularly interesting) as well as her continued castigation of liberals as such, she loses not only the “secular” or irreligious liberal but also the liberal Christian–one who may even be “left” simply by virtue of not enjoying the “columnist Matt Walsh” (68). “But,” you or she may protest, “a liberal Christian is an oxymoron!” Such may very well be the case, but Pearcey doesn’t prove that; all the reader can tell is that she’s assumed as much. Love Thy Body lacks the winsomeness that ought to attend any work that isn’t pure polemics.

Pearcey’s Worldview Problem

As noted above, Pearcey writes downstream from the patron saint of post-postmodern Evangelical apologetics, Francis Schaeffer (12ff). Her application of Schaeffer’s two-story account of our world is more frequently ham-fisted than illustrative, more a product of reading the world as a Schaefferian than reading to understand. None of which statements should necessarily malign Schaeffer; he belonged to a period of time and was effective. Part of Pearcey’s problem is a failure to amend Schaeffer’s heuristic for the present moment. She quite simply regurgitates Schaeffer’s method and diagnosis, whereas the best devotees know that an effective use of a teacher involves reconfiguring the teacher’s material for today.

One unfortunate feature of Schaeffer’s legacy, which Pearcey reproduces here, is the formal emphasis on one’s “worldview” as the ground for one’s actions in the world. That is to say, Pearcey premises her book on the idea that how the contemporary world does depends on what that world believes. The beliefs of an individual are the ground for their action. She positions herself clearly: “A person’s morality is always derivative. It stems from his or her worldview” (136). According to the model, the fundamental mode of being-in-the-world is cognitive. That is, we are thinking things and the other facets of our humanity are built upon that first foundation; in breve, what we believe determines our actions and our affections.

However, there’s good reason to believe that such a construction puts the cart before the horse. We frequently live and do subconsciously–that is, we don’t rationally justify our actions. We act, rather, according to pre-conscious affections or desires. We want a hamburger more than we want a salad, even though we know that a salad would be better for us, and so we choose the burger despite our understanding. Per Smith, our fundamental mode is not cognitive–although it is neither necessarily non-cognitive–but affective. We love, and we act accordingly. We desire, and we do as a result. Smith writes, “To say that humans are, at root, lovers is to emphasize that we are the sorts of animals for whom things matter in ways that we often don’t (and can’t) articulate” (51). We desire before we can articulate the rationality for the desire, which suggests that the rationality for our desire is more likely a rationalization or post hoc justification for why we act. Worldview-talk, in this case, is not so much a submission to the way things are but more a systematization of the way we would prefer things be.[2]

Rather than assigning fundamental priority in human existence to abstract conceptualization a la worldview and rationality, we would more ground it in the lived experience, in the chosen mode-of-being reflected by one’s actions in the world. The material existence of a person in the world–how it is they encounter and react to the world around them–matters more than their supposed view thereof. Such is why god speaks through the prophet Jeremiah, “Let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight, declares the Lord” (Jer. 9.24), and why, continuing, he says, “Did not your father eat and drink and do justice and righteousness? Then it was well with him. He judged the cause of the poor and needy; then it was well. Is not this to know me? declares the Lord” (Jer. 22.15b-16). Hitting on a consistent emphasis of mine, what matters is not the rationalization of action or the cognitive scaffolding that attends our actions but the action itself. Such is why faithfulness even in the face of doubt counts, while expressed belief during a life of disobedience does not. We are “loving” or “desiring” people prior to being “thinking” people, and our loves and desires have greater explanatory power for our actions (and our ethics) than the post hoc rationalizations we call “worldview.”

Teleological or Theological Ethics?

Pearcey envisions her project as fundamentally a work of “teleological ethics,” built on a “teleological view of nature” (21). She makes the connection to natural law a few pages later, when she writes,

If nature is teleological, and the human body is part of nature, then it is likewise teleological. It has a built-in purpose, part of which is expressed as the moral law. We are morally obligated to treat people in a way that helps them fulfill their purpose. This explains why biblical morality is not arbitrary. Morality is the guidebook to fulfilling God’s original purpose for humanity, the instruction manual for becoming the kind of person God intends us to be, the road map for reaching the human telos. This is sometimes called natural law ethics because it tells us how to fulfill our true nature, how to become fully human. (23)

For Pearcey, the perfection or goal of human flourishing can be achieved by acting according to the rules that already inhere within nature. Pearcey equivocates, making a poor version of the watchmaker analogy (a species of the teleological argument) (22), and argues that the creative mind responsible for the world also created the norms by which we ought to structure our lives. She argues, per her teleological ethic, “If the body has no intrinsic purpose, built in by God, then all that matters are human purposes” (24), meaning, of course, that the “givenness” of our material experience is the locus of god’s purpose for us. The upper story, in short, cannot be allowed to impose its order on the lower.

Pearcey’s teleological ethics assumes purposive elements in god’s creative act. But, as noted above, her account fails to do justice to the Christian doctrine of sin (and its radical reach) and to the Christian doctrine of restoration. In other words, her teleological ethics could have just easily been written by a deist, because all it requires is the existence of an apparently structured world. In the absence of an immanent god, how does the ethical account presented here change in the least? The structures still exist. There’s no need to account for their distortion due to sin. The lived experience doesn’t require the hope of eschatological fulfillment. All that is necessary is submitting to the presented material form.

The ethics, therefore, aren’t robustly Christian. They may be a robust account of natural law or even stubbornly conservative (as natural law ethics typically are), but they aren’t unadulteratedly Christian. Her account of sin’s extensivity is lacking, and the moral vision, which colors the Christian ethical imagination, lacks the hoping-for-which intrinsic to Christian being-in-the-world. A theological ethics finds the source of its energy in god’s work among his people, not in the abstract structuring of creation prior to the fall.

All of which is, quite frankly, disappointing as far as Pearcey’s project goes. I had picked up the work on the basis of its hype among Christian intelligentsia and because, in large measure, I agree with the arc of the project. There is something to one’s givenness in the world, and, for all its talk of the resurrection, most contemporary theology does not make enough of the body. But, Pearcey’s work was too reactionary and too polemical to advance the conversation. It’s a new articulation of natural law and teleology, but it doesn’t do much beyond this. We need an ethics of the body that centers itself on the incarnation, resurrection, and crucifixion; on the body of Christ; and on the New Jerusalem.

[1] “Psychosomatic unity” gets to the heart of human existence in a better way than describing a person as an “embodied soul” or, worse, as the apocryphal attribution to Lewis puts it, “You don’t have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body.” To be human is to live as one “formed from the dust of the ground” (Gen. 2.7), in which our corporeality is as necessary to our being as is our immaterial soul. We are not “embodied” in the sense that we could also be in a “disembodied” state and retain our full humanity. The Christian doctrine of the resurrection of the dead forces our two spheres of being into a permanent embrace, such that our soul and our body belong to each other.

“Psychosomatic unity” also best describes the way in which we experience the world. Our bodies are the necessary manifestations and mediations of our will such that the body itself channels and nudges the will toward one end or another. It’s not as though our soul stands over our body as a cowboy over a bronco, hoping to corral its behavior. The soul and the body are mutually interdependent. Such is part of Jamie Smith’s contention in Desiring the Kingdom when he writes,

To be human is to love, and it is what we love that defines who we are. Our (ultimate) love is constitutive of our identity. … We are talking about ultimate loves–that to which we are fundamentally oriented, what ultimately governs our vision of the good life, what shapes and molds our being-in-the-world–in other words, what we desire above all else, the ultimate desire that shapes and positions and makes sense of all our penultimate desires and actions. (51)

And when he continues, “The rhythms and rituals of Christian worship are not the ‘expression of’ a Christian worldview, but are themselves an ‘understanding’ implicit in practice–an understanding that cannot be had apart from the practices” (69). Our practices, frequently undertaken apart from conscious volition, themselves shape our conscious volition.

[2] This, I would contend, is also the nature of “natural law” talk, of which Pearcey makes use as well. Natural law derives the ought from the is while at the same time maintaining the modern modes of being. That is to say, “natural law” functions essentially as a conservative ethical impositions on the supposedly inherent structures of the world; the world, therefore, reflects the already existing norms of society. Where the natural order actually departs from the mandated norms, though, they are subtly ignored or tucked away as an exception to the rule. Briefly, the appeal to “natural law” is an appeal to authority masquerading as philosophy.

Disclosure: I received this book free from Baker Books through the Baker Books Bloggers program. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255

On Aaron Hernandez and Moral Culpability

Aaron Hernandez played for the New England Patriots from 2010 – 2012, when he was arrested for and then convicted of the murder of Odin Lloyd. He was subsequently charged with a separate double murder, but the court found him not guilty. After his acquittal in that case, and in the midst of the appeals process for the Lloyd murder, Hernandez was found hanged in his cell on April 19, 2017. As a result, the initial conviction for Odin Lloyd’s murder was vacated.

In the months since his death, scientists have had an opportunity to examine Hernandez’s brain to see whether he suffered from neurodegeneration. In addition to some genetic abnormalities pertaining to neurodegeneration, they determined that Hernandez had Stage 3 CTE, which is the most “severe damage in a brain younger than 46 years old” the researchers had seen. Dr. McKee, who led this team of researchers, noted, “We can’t take the pathology and explain the behavior, but we can say collectively that individuals with CTE of this severity have difficulty with impulse control, decision-making, aggression, often emotional volatility, and rage behavior.”

This raises a number of questions, specifically concerning the degree to which Hernandez’s genetic precondition and the subsequent harm from playing football contributed to the actions for which he was convicted. We’ll proceed under the assumption that, although Hernandez’s initial conviction was vacated per legal precedent, Hernandez retains moral responsibility for the act, because it was done propria manu. Nevertheless, if Hernandez were compelled by internal forces over which he had little control, one ought to consider to what degree Hernandez should be condemned for the act.[1]

That’s the question I want to examine. How does Hernandez’s genetic precondition and chronic traumatic encephalopathy affect his moral culpability? There seems to be little question over whether or not Hernandez committed the acts; his legal responsibility is of interest only to those who care for legal minutiae and to those who equate the law with ethics. Does Hernandez’s mental health bear on his moral responsibility, and, if so, in what manner?

To begin, we would do well to take a step back from Hernandez’s case in particular and situate ourselves in the Christian vision of the world. Christian orthodoxy holds that, although humanity had initially existed in a state of unadulterated communion with the creator, it alienated itself through a measure of disobedience from the creator. Since that initial innocence, humanity has been estranged from the ground of its existence. As a result, humanity acts within a warped world, marred by sin, and itself perceives and acts upon the world according to a distorted vision thereof.

Furthermore, according to Western orthodoxy (via Augustine [and his readers]), people are born not only estranged from their original innocence but also “guilty” of “original sin,” the sin of the patriarch. Although individuals are born into a world (seemingly) irreparably harmed by evils committed by people prior to them, and some of which are natural to the state of estrangement (cf. Ro. 8.20-23), Western Christianity broadly holds that individuals retain some measure of moral guilt simply by virtue of birth into a postlapsarian universe. Accounting for the state of the universe as one affected by sin in every manner, Western orthodoxy continues to teach that individuals affected (naturally rather than ethically)[2] by sin will still be held ethically responsible for those things committed by their hands.[3] The pertinent question is the degree to which both the “subjection to futility” in the body (viz. natural sin) and also the chronic traumatic encephalopathy, which could reasonably trigger subconscious alterations in the brain’s chemistry resulting in an increase in rage and violent tendencies–the degree to which these features, in Hernandez’s case in particular as well as in cases more broadly, impinge on the ethical liability of agents.

What I would like to suggest is that the degree to which natural capacities affect one’s culpability for wrongs (or, perhaps, their praise for rights?) has been underestimated. Not to say that a disposition to anger (whose etiology is a genetic or neurologic abnormality) utterly absolves one of wrongs committed on that basis, but perhaps we ought to be more circumspect in assigning culpability, more willing to consider the extensivity of sin’s reach:  sin no more throws the weather patterns of the world into disarray than it disorders the neural patterns of one’s mind.

The trouble, of course, is determining the proper assignment of blame. The two simplest answers proffered are (1) the one who acts always in every circumstance has full moral responsibility and (2) the one who acts does so under unrecognized compulsion, whether that be “the system” or genetic abnormality. We want to shy away from either one of those two solutions, for reasons outlined above. Because we are psychosomatic unities, and because our bodies are the means by which we have the possibility of engagement with the world, we can neither disassociate the actions of the body from our responsibility–nor can we act as though somatic limitations, dispositions, and tendencies do not in some sense bear on that responsibility. That is to say, our bodies provide the field for our moral behavior, and this field shapes the way in which moral responsibility can be assigned.

Insofar as Hernandez is concerned, it would seem that his chronic traumatic encephalopathy (exacerbated by his genetic marker) simultaneously constrained his ethical responsibility and made him more likely to violate those moral bounds; in fact, it could be said succinctly that to be made more likely to violate is to necessarily constrain responsibility. Again, to “constrain” is not to eliminate. One must always labor against the sinful dispositions into which we are born, however they manifest themselves. Hernandez ought to have been aware of the disproportionate levels of rage within himself, and he ought to have attempted to work against that tendency. Did his advanced CTE make such labor impossible? I don’t know. His perception of the moral landscape appears to have been heavily skewed towards violence as a legitimate solution. Perhaps there was some environmental failure around him, in which family or friends ought to have attempted to corral Hernandez’s worst tendencies, but ultimately the responsibility for the work of the hands belongs to the one whose hands they are. It seems that in some measure Hernandez’s actions could be ethically “excused”–but not altogether. His actions were so heinous that, legal guilt notwithstanding, Hernandez’s soul was tainted by the murder regardless of his unconscious tendency to those types of actions. His genetic and traumatic abnormalities diminish his culpability, but he retains a large measure of it because he seems to have embraced the sinful disposition rather than worked against it.

[1] This hints at the legal distinction between mens rea and actus reus, or between the “guilty mind” or internal elements and the “guilty act” or the crime itself. By way of example, the degree to which somebody commits homicide with “malicious forethought” determines the “degree” of homicide with which they should be convicted, from negligent homicide to first-degree murder. However, were one to be compelled to kill under threat of their own death, or, perhaps, under a spell, it would not be difficult to argue that the person who committed the act should not be held criminally responsible for it, because they did not “will” to do so, nor did they act recklessly in a manner that could have brought about a death.

[2] That is to say, one’s physical body, down to their genetics, is “subjected to futility” (cf. Ro. 8.20) because of sin; things go haywire because the world is disordered–not because “this man or his parents sinned” (cf. Jn. 9.3).

[3] One can make the argument that one is responsible not merely for the things done (or failed to have done) by their hands but for the way in which one treats the sinful (dis-)order of the world as it manifests in their environment. Per James K. A. Smith in Imagining the Kingdom, “Through a vast repertoire of secular liturgies we are quietly assimilated to the earthly city of disordered loves, governed by self-love and the pursuit of domination. So we toddle off to church or Bible study week after week, comforting ourselves that we’re devoted to ‘the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord,’ without realizing that we spend the rest of the week making bread for idols because we fail to appreciate the religious nature of these ‘secular’ practices. So we become the kind of people who are inclined to a sort of low-grade, socially acceptable greed that makes us remarkably tolerant of inequality and the exploitation of the (global) poor; or we take for granted a mobile, commuting way of life that exploits creation’s resources rather than stewards them. … A way of life becomes habitual for us such that we pursue that way of life–we act in that way of life–without thinking about it because we’ve absorbed the habitus that is oriented to a corresponding vision of ‘the good life” (141-2, emphasis original).

Burials, Cremations, and Alkaline Hydrolyses

I want to extend a line of thought to which I briefly alluded in my previous post on abortion. I argued that we intuitively know to treat the human body as such with a certain “somatic privilege.” My eye in that argument was to the treatment of the fetus as a certain kind of human body — the result being that dismemberment or mutilation in the act of abortion, except when medically necessary, is forbidden.

Since my argument concerned the human body as such, there isn’t anything intrinsic to it that would limit the force of the argument to any one period of a body’s existence. That is to say: so long as a human body is, it ought to receive this somatic privilege — dignity, sanctity, respect. I noted previously that the increasing rate of cremation in the United States may put a wrinkle in my assessment of where we are in terms of our intuitive understanding of the somatic privilege. Then, I came across the article, “In the future, your body won’t be buried… you’ll dissolve” (Hayley Campbell: Wired Magazine, September 2017), which suggests a growing industry committed to hypoallergenic methods of disposing corpses.

Rather than burying a body that has been pumped “full of nine litres of dyed-pink, carcinogenic formaldehyde and various other chemicals,” which slowly permeate the soil and water near the cemetery, and rather than cremating the corpse, in which “cross-contamination of bodies is inevitable” because of the impossibility of removing all “bone dust” from the chamber — alkaline hydrolysis is supposed to dispose of the corpse in a “process … more efficient and better for the environment.” Alkaline hydrolysis dissolves the flesh and calcifies the bone, such that the dust can easily be stored or dispersed in water if desired.

Insofar as poisoning-via-embalming of soil and groundwater near cemeteries is a substantial problem,[1] alkaline hydrolysis could solve it. The question, of course, is if the solution raises a problem in itself. I would argue that it does but for the same catena of reasons that cremation does.

Funerary ethics targets two distinct populations with two distinct aims. There is the population of the dead — the body, which is to be treated with respect — and then there is the population of the living — the mourners, who, among other things, are taught by the burial practice.[2] We will tackle both of these populations in turn.

First, the body. What, one may ask, does it matter how we treat the corpse? So long as the treatment isn’t patently offensive, shouldn’t the corpse be treated in whatever manner satisfies either the will of the deceased or their family? For reasons outlined in my previous post, I’m not convinced that the will trumps what belongs to the body by virtue of its nature — respect, sanctity, the like. Of course, the way in which respect is shown to the body will differ by circumstance. “Circumstance,” however, needs to be defined more specifically. Rather than making burial essentially a cultural free-for-all, in which the funeral pyre and the burial mound are equally valid by virtue of being the norms of their particular cultures — it seems more in line with the “natural right” given to the body to define “circumstance” as the “natural” environment that simultaneously prohibits and permits specific burial practices. New Orleans, for example, can’t bury the dead in the traditional, underground manner without making the buried dead liable to reemerging when floodwaters appear. In response to the physical environment, a New Orleans corpse is buried above ground in a concrete sepulcher and, thanks to the heat, slowly cremated. It seems the best possible solution in a land that does not seem to want people living there.

Under “normal” circumstances, what is the appropriate manner that a corpse should be treated? More specifically, how does one show respect and dignity to a corpse in burial? It is at this point that the Christian teaching of the resurrection of the dead bears most keenly on the issue. “Let the dead bury their dead,” but we are to act in such a way, through life and death, that reflects that ultimate hope. To bury the dead in a way that looks forward to the resurrection would seem to disallow purposeful destruction of the corpse. “Purposeful destruction” would include such processes of artificially quickened decomposition, such as crematory ovens or alkaline hydrolysis vats. These, because they are constructed with the purpose of expediently rendering the corpse into manageable pieces, do not permit one to recognize in their use the Christian hope for the final resurrection.[3] A homily or funeral message that speaks to the resurrection is, in effect, countered by a burial process that signifies a meaninglessness of the physical body as such. On the contrary, being image-bearers, the human being bears the stamp of god’s image only through their incarnate existence. No human life exists disembodied, and therefore the body has intrinsic worth in its bearing god’s image.

Now, the mourners. Practice teaches, and burial practice is not different in this respect. How one treats the corpse will speak to the audience, whether they perceive the lesson or not. Ecclesiastes, of course, has something to say to this. To begin, Qoheleth reflects:  “I said in my heart with regard to human beings that god is testing them to show them that they are but animals. For the fate of humans and the fate of animals is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and humans have no advantage over animals; for all is vanity. All go to one place; all are from dust, and all turn to dust again” (Eccl. 3.18-20). This mirrors the Edenic curse, “You are dust, / and to dust you shall return” (Gen. 3.19).[4] “All is vanity,” in part because we’re all destined for the grave; we’re all destined to return to the earth. However, the dusty return does not compel the mourner to destroy the corpse. Those who bury the dead are to permit the natural course of decomposition to run, with the hope that in the final resurrection the body will be restored.

Qoheleth muses further, “It is better to go to the house of mourning / than to go to the house of feasting; / for this is the end of everyone, / and the living will lay it to heart” (Eccl. 7.2). The Teacher exhorts the reader to recognize in the grief of death this lesson:  such is my end. “It is better.” Why? Because rather than glossing over what awaits each individual, “the house of mourning,” with a community grieved and weeping, reminds the individual that the natural end for every life is death — not an infinite progression, but an end. To view the distended corpse, to view the corpse, is to see yourself as you will be. This effect is obviously muted when what remains for viewing is, at best, a vase of ashes or, worse, the memorial recollections of the deceased loved ones. As valuable as memory-sharing is, it does not have the same immediate effect as being in the same room as a corpse. To view the corpse is to look forward, rather than backward, from what was to what will be — from life to death to decomposition. But it is also to see in death a hope for resurrection.

[1] That is, not an isolated incident brought about by a unique set of localized problems. However, with the risk of climate change seemingly growing, what was an isolated occurrence may become a pattern. I’m not qualified to offer anything more than a shot in the dark, so I will refrain.

[2] Such teaching is most often implicit. This follows the line of argument I made in a previous post, “In Defense of the Loaf and the Cup,” in which I argue that the practice of Communion matters as much as much as the teaching that accompanies it. In a similar manner, the practice of burial and mourning the dead articulates the view that one has toward the body, generally, and this person, specifically, in a less determinate manner than the homily but nevertheless substantively.

[3] This does the raise the question of how the New Orleans “slow bake” cremation would be different in kind from the kind of cremation offered by crematories. For one, the natural heat of the sun is being used, and it reads as a good-faith response to the environment in which New Orleans is situated. All bodies decompose, and in most circumstances this results in the bones being all that remains. Such natural cremation, unlike the crematory’s, ends similarly.

This also raises a similar question of unnaturally prolonging the present-ability of a corpse. Embalming fluids can “keep” a corpse for a few days, but the chemicals can leech into the soil if the casket is not properly sealed — and if it is properly sealed, “the lack of oxygen turns the body into a black soup” — neither of which are preferable. Rather, there does seem to be something to the viewing of a distended body. Nothing grotesque, but to understand that “you are dust, and to dust you shall return” is far easier when you see what happens to a formerly vigorous person once the life leaves them.

[4] Which in turn is undone, in a sense, by the man’s naming of the woman “Eve,” which is itself an act of hope of life against death, “because she was the mother of all the living.”